Mental Health and the Importance of the Independent Ability to Learn

Over the holiday break, our family purchased an electric piano, and as I write you this, I hear my daughter Kallea playing on it outside my office. Typically, when I write, I try to find as quiet of a place and time to do it, but I am glad to make the exception.

Although this purchase was primarily made in mind for my oldest daughter to start taking piano lessons, I will admit that there was a selfishness in the purchase as the piano has always been my favorite instrument.

I often talk about the need to build on the strengths of our children and students in school, but that should also encompass a certain amount of trying to expose our youngest learners to things they might not know they are interested in yet. It is not one or the other, but both.

My bias on this statement is that from my childhood, two of my biggest regrets are that I a) didn’t learn to speak Greek (my parents’ first language) and b) that I didn’t stick with playing the piano.

I fought to learn Greek as a child because we were the only Greek family in our small Canadian town (my parents were immigrants from the country). Whenever my mom tried to speak the language to me, I immediately asked her to stop because I felt embarrassed about how different it made me feel. One of the things that I think is essential in schools today is the celebration of different cultures as I am not sure I would have felt the same today as I would have growing up in school during the 80s. It was not that the teachers or school did anything to deter me from speaking the language, but I couldn’t honestly say that it was something that I felt was celebrated.

As for the piano, I took lessons for a couple of years but stopped the second my parents let me do so. I honestly wish they hadn’t given me the choice, but I struggled with the practice routine and was unable to play any songs I liked. You can only play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” so many times before it becomes obnoxious, and you start becoming resentful of Mary’s traveling petting zoo. 

Due to my older brothers, I probably would have been more interested in playing Depeche Mode than nursery rhymes. I never made it that far.

So the first thing I did when I brought out the piano was learn the opening riff of “City of Stars” from the movie La La Land. I taught myself, and then I quickly taught Kallea. She loves this movie, and I knew that if she could immediately play something she recognized, her interest level would increase exponentially.

I Googled “City of Stars play on the piano” and immediately found the following on YouTube:



It immediately felt like a game changer to be able to find this on YouTube, and I wonder how much this technology would have influenced my own development as a child. No matter how much this technology becomes ubiquitous, I never take it for granted. What a fantastic time we live in to have access to so much information and to be able to capitalize on it if we choose.

Although Kallea will be taking formal lessons soon, I wanted her to play around, learn a few things, and even downloaded an app with some beginner lessons that I am doing alongside her. I am actually trying to learn and embrace the idea that I didn’t quit piano; I just took an approximate 40-year hiatus from playing. I want to go through the struggle with my daughter.

I believe that if you have a compelling reason, you can learn anything. 



My compelling reason is not only my own interest in playing but learning alongside my daughter and embracing the struggle together.

But not totally together…

As Kalleas was practicing on the app (FlowKey), she wanted to try a song and asked me to come over to help her navigate the search because she couldn’t figure it out.

But she could figure it out; she just didn’t want to in the moment. Sometimes, getting someone else to do things for you is far easier, and although that might feel good at the moment, it can cause problems in the long term.

Instead of rushing from what I was doing, I gave Kallea the advice I have given to several educators over the years.

Look around the screen and press buttons until you figure it out.

I actually told her the same advice that I would have implemented myself. The app was as new to me as it was her, and I started pressing buttons until it made sense.

The piano, in some ways, has a similar feature. When figuring out a song, I often press buttons (the keys) until it sounds right. The more I press the buttons, the easier it becomes to figure out.

Teaching my own children, as well as focusing on empowering students to find their own paths and solutions, is something that I believe in deeply and is the focus of “The Innovator’s Mindset.” I have said often that when students leave school, a successful teacher will help them understand and help them develop the skills that they know they can find their own way forward. If students need teachers after leaving school, we haven’t done our job.

As much as this has been about empowering students, Boston College professor Peter Gray (Ph.D.) believes it is also crucial to improved mental health. I read this article titled, “Is this the innovative solution to the growing student mental health crisis in the U.S.?” and Gray theorizes that independent play is beneficial to a child’s mental health.



Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College, recently co-wrote an article in the Journal of Pediatrics theorizing that a loss of childhood independence is to blame for increasing mental disorders. Play and independence, they say, could be the antidote. 

“Children who have more opportunities than others for independent activities are not only happier in the short run, because the activities engender happiness and a sense of trustworthiness and competence, but also happier in the long run,” says Gray. 



(You can also read more on this from this Washington Post article.)


As a parent and teacher, it is easy to want to step in and solve every problem for our children and students. We don’t want to see them fail or even have moments of disappointment. Although that can make us feel good now, it can hurt them long-term. If we teach this young generation that someone will always come in and solve their problems, that takes away any agency they have and ensures a dependence on others to solve their problems. So what happens when others don’t do that for them? It can create a hopelessness for the future.

Sometimes, the hardest thing to say to our kids at the moment is “figure it out yourself,” but sometimes, that can be the best for them in the future. Of course, we do our best to ensure that we build a community that is supportive of others, but it is hard to count on others when you don’t learn to first count on yourself.

No matter what content we teach in schools and the lessons we teach as parents, instilling the ability to learn will always be the most important gift we can provide our children.

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